Minneapolis Star Tribune

Sunday, June 7, 1998

Kids Learn English But Stick with Native Tongues, Too

Like most kindergartners, Yorleni Contreras mastered the alphabet, learned about shapes and colors, and acquired social skills before school ended Friday. But the 5-year-old Honduran girl had learned them in both Spanish and English.

She's one of 50 children who have completed a bilingual kindergarten program at Homecroft Elementary School in St. Paul, where they studied basic skills in their native Spanish while gradually learning English in preparation for mainstream classes.

The class is similar to bilingual programs under fire in California, where residents overwhelmingly voted last week to dismantle such efforts.

Critics have complained that such programs segregate children and delay their transition into mainstream classes.

Minnesota educators say the California initiative, which bilingual education advocates are challenging in court, isn't likely to have any ramifications here. The state has few bilingual programs, and even as the population of non-English-speaking children grows in Minnesota, "we just don't have the kind of problems and issues that they have in California," said Luz Maria Serrano, director of English-language learning programs in St. Paul schools.

Although both St. Paul and Minneapolis provide some bilingual education, educators say, the emphasis is on teaching students English as quickly as possible.

Educators say progress and achievement among those students varies as much as among any other students.

Growing needs  
The number of students in Minnesota who speak little or no English has more than tripled in the past 10 years to about 29,000, with most attending schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis. That's about 5 percent of total student enrollment, according to the state Department of Children, Families and Learning.

While Spanish is the dominant foreign language in California schools, Hmong is the language most widely spoken by immigrant children in Minnesota. Spanish comes in second here, and at least another 80 native tongues can be heard in school halls, including Russian and Farsi, the official language of Iran.

And as the national debate on the effectiveness of bilingual education continues, Twin Cities-area school districts are left to decide what works best for them.

Minneapolis schools emphasize bilingual education only for new immigrant students in the most commonly spoken languages -- Hmong, Spanish and Vietnamese among them. All of the district's 7,600 children with limited English proficiency enroll in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes when they are not in regular English-speaking classrooms.

Karon Hergenhahn, director of bilingual and ESL services for the district, said the number of schools with ESL programs will increase from 46 this year to 54 next school year. One reason is the continuing growth of Somali students, she said. In the past five years, that student population has risen from 100 to 1,600.

"The biggest thing is, we're trying to provide equal access to education," Hergenhahn said. "I think Minneapolis has been focusing on the needs of the kids and not getting too much into the politics."

In St. Paul the kindergarten program offered at Homecroft and at Roosevelt Elementary School is the only daylong bilingual class under the Latino Consent Decree, a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed in the late 1970s by Hispanic parents demanding fair education.

A total of about 1,500 Hispanic students receive special instruction under the terms of the decree.

In schools with few Hispanics, children attend only ESL classes.

The St. Paul School District's roughly 8,500 Hmong students also receive ESL instruction, Serrano said. "We just don't have the materials, the teachers or the resources for bilingual classes in Hmong and English."

Another program for St. Paul students with limited or no English skills is TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), which instructs students separately for up to two years at various elementary schools.

"It is important to point out that here, the primary instruction is ESL, which is not the case in many California schools that prioritized instruction in the native language," Serrano said.

A running debate  
But, as in Homecroft's bilingual kindergarten program, Serrano said, native-language instruction can be instrumental in easing children into English.

"The majority of our students need that additional help," she said of immigrant children. "It's too bad that the whole issue of bilingual education gets clouded by politics."

Anne Royalty, who teaches the Homecroft bilingual kindergarten class with Gloria Rosso-White, has heard all the arguments against bilingual education before. She's been teaching it off and on for the past 20 years.

"I'm tired of all the bashing of bilingual education," she said. "None of those opinions are based on knowledge of all the research that's been done in support of it."

Opponents of bilingual education also say that as much research has shown that bilingual education doesn't work.

Tim Schultz, a spokesman for U.S. English in Washington, D.C., which advocates changes in bilingual education, said that the more immigrant children are exposed to English, the faster they learn.

"We are not against the use of native language at all," he said. "The problem is that in California, some children were getting only 30 minutes a day of English instruction."

Oblivious to the hot-button issue that bilingual education has become since its creation in the 1960s, Yorleni and the rest of the Homecroft kindergartners gathered in an assembly Thursday. They sang in English and in Spanish and received certificates for their yearlong efforts.

They also got to take home some of the projects they made during the year.

"I make a flower," Yorleni said in English, showing off a daisy made out of construction paper. "A mi mama le va a gustar [My mom will like it]," she continued in Spanish.